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Feb 7, 2007

How to win friends and influence people

And then there were three. Having spurned suitors from Thailand and Dubai, Liverpool have finally agreed a takeover and, after Manchester United and Aston Villa, become the third Premier League club to be acquired by American investors.

Under the terms of the deal, which values the club at almost £220million, US sporting tycoons George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks are to replace David Moores as the majority owner of Liverpool and assume control of one of the most successful and famed clubs in world football.

How Liverpool supporters react to Gillett and Hicks, particularly in comparison to the American regimes at Villa Park and Old Trafford, will be fascinating to observe, and could also go a long way to showing how successful the takeover will be. Will Gillett and Hicks be warmly welcomed as Randy Lerner was, or vilified as the Glazers were?

In matters as emotive as taking over a much-loved football club first impressions are vitally important, and in that regard Gillett and Hicks have started well; making very positive statements about Liverpool's future and speaking in reverential tones about the club's rich heritage.

In what amounts to a battle for hearts and minds the two Americans have so far conducted themselves with an impressive savvy and done much to allay the fears of many sceptical fans.

When Lerner took over at Villa the club's fans were so desperate for fresh impetus after years of inertia that they welcomed the modest millionaire with open arms, so glad were they were to see the back of Doug Ellis.

By contrast there was enormous opposition to the Glazers when they assumed control of Manchester United thanks largely to the use of debt financing to fund the takeover but also compounded by the secretive family's reluctance to speak directly to fans and reporters.

Learning from the public relations disaster that was the Glazers' takeover at Old Trafford and building on the modest success of Lerner at Villa Park both Gillett and Hicks have mounted what amounts to a charm offensive.

When Hicks, the 60-year-old owner of the MLB's Texas Rangers and the NHL's Dallas Stars, and Gillett, the 68-year-old owner of the NHL's Montreal Canadiens were formally introduced to the fans and media in Anfield's trophy room they spoke graciously and confidently about Liverpool's past, present and future.

Gillett, seemingly the more comfortable and informed of the two men (which is understandable as Hicks has only been involved in the takeover for a month), spoke with a warm disarming eloquence that will have done much to win over those who feel that football takeovers are to be regarded with suspicion.

The use of words like respect, tradition and history suggested that Gillett and Hicks had done their homework and understand the special place Liverpool has in the lives of its fans, but more than that, they spoke of the club as a community asset and referred to themselves as its new custodians rather than owners.

The only time Malcolm Glazer spoke of his family's acquisition of United he unknowingly committed the cardinal sin of refereeing to the club as a 'franchise'. While the US dictionary definition of the term might mean a professional sporting club or team, in the UK it doesn't. In fact, with absolutely no sporting connotation whatsoever, the term conjures to the average football fan images of the soulless, hard-nosed, profit-driven world of business.

Not even the most naïve fan could believe that business doesn't have a crucial role to play in football in the modern age, but the key is to relate to the average fan the necessity of a business-like approach to their team by those that own and run it.

To this end Gillett and Hicks made a conscious effort to refer to Liverpool as a 'club' rather than a 'franchise', and even though the term did crop-up late in their press conference, its use could not undo the good work they had already done.

While they were determined to present themselves as affable characters who held a healthy and growing respect for the club and its folklore neither Gillett or Hicks were unabashed when it came to discussing the nitty-gritty of the takeover or that their objective was to foster success on and off the pitch.

When Hicks said 'We know what you want, you want to win', he didn't need to add 'So do we', it was implied in all their previous and statements. After all, winning brings in money. And from next season it will bring in more than ever before.

The Premier League recently completed the process of exploiting of its television and new media rights for the next three years. Through a variety of domestic and international deals the league will generate £2.7billion over three seasons starting in August. This is almost double the value of the last three-year deal and means that the richest league in the world just got a pay rise.

The enormous wealth generated by the league for its clubs is a major attraction for investors like Gillett and Hicks. They have been coy about it so far, but they are here to make money, plain and simple. But they are wise enough, and have been in professional sport long enough, to know that winning teams make the most money.

'Winning is everything', said Gillett, and with £50million going to the champions of the Premiership next season one can appreciate his sentiments.

For supporters the takeover is great news. The new owners have bought their beloved club, wiped out its debts, are promising to push ahead win plans for the new stadium in Stanley Park and to invest in the playing squad; all with the ultimate objective of winning.

For the fans winning means trophies, for the owners winning trophies means making money and that will be their ultimate measure of success. By way of a happy coincidence success on the pitch will translate into success off the pitch. Everyone's a winner.

And as if all that weren't enough to win over the sceptics the respect offered to Rick Parry and David Moores and the promise of their continued involvement at the club is the icing on the metaphorical cake.

Parry will continue as chief executive and Moores, Liverpool's chairman and majority owner, will continue to have a presence as Life President of the club.

The decision to retain Moores and Parry is a shrewd move because, in the case of Parry, it will ensure that the takeover will have minimal detrimental impact on the day-to-day running of the club, while retaining Moores will help to further ingratiate the fans with the new regime.

Liverpool fans hold Moores in very high regard for his, and his family's steadfast commitment to the club over the last 50 years, and his seal of approval on the deal and continued presence at the club adds a vital legitimacy to the takeover.

Although Moores is a wealthy man (around £70million wealthier after the Gillett-Hicks takeover) he did not have the wherewithal to compete with Roman Abramovich and to take Liverpool to the next level. Admitting this to himself and relinquishing control of the club bequeathed him from his uncle, Sir John Moores, must have been an emotional wrench.

Moores can however take solace that his family's involvement at Liverpool coincided with an unparalleled period of success including 18 league titles and five European Cups and his final gesture to the club has been to strike a deal that should not only safeguard the club's future but that could also lead to another period of sporting success.


  • Any thoughts? Then you can email Phil Holland.